Today I had, without a doubt, the worst shower of my life. You know
how you feel after a long day of skiing; you're soaking wet and
freezing cold, a cold that will not go away without a hot shower. Well
that was me today, and after my long-anticipated shower, I'm still
freezing cold. This despite wearing two long underwear shirts
underneath a wool sweater, and long underwear under my jeans.
Barring a cataclysmic seismic event on the island of Ireland, nobody
will ever stand on a spot higher than Michael and I have. That spot
was Mt. Carrauntoohill, which menacingly juts skyward, rising 2500
vertical feet (to a summit at 3500 feet) from it's base, and looks
more like a peak you'd see in Switzerland than Ireland. The snow began
about halfway up the mountain, and the surrounding slopes, green as
green can be, were engulfed in snow at their peaks. And we stood on
the highest one.
Since coming to Ireland, Michael and I have been craving some
adventure. We'd stopped at each castle we'd seen along the road and
traveled to the brink of the Atlantic to see Europe's oldest
lighthouse. At Hook Light, we braved the wind and rain, and watched an
offshore gale send 15-foot breakers smashing into the rocky shoreline,
their spray lifting skyward nearly as high as the lighthouse itself.
We drove onward from Wexford, where we'd spent the first night on the
Emerald Isle, with no destination in mind, just enjoying the scenery.
We stopped again along towering cliffs guarding Ireland's southern
coast, and couldn't stop telling each other we were actually in
Ireland. It was everything we'd expected and then some.
Around 7pm last night we rolled into Killarney, which looked like a
nice spot in Lonely Planet. There is an enormous national park on the
town's doorstep, and we wanted to explore. After wandering through
town and stumbling into Neptune's Hostel, we headed for a pub. Three
Irishmen with fiddles and a concertina played sea chanties and Bob
Dylan while we enjoyed the best-tasting Guiness in the world. It was
during then that we decided to attempt climbing Ireland's highest
mountain, and by the second beer we reckoned it'd be easy.
Upon returning to the hostel and telling the receptionist of our
plans, our expectations were immediately brought back to earth. She
warned us of the snow in the mountains, the relentless wind that
scours the summit, the plummeting temperatures and the fickle weather…
and this was in the summer. She suggested we instead rent some bikes
and go explore the more accessible parts of the park, which included a
large lake where stood a 15th century castle. It sounded nice, but we
had already decided we had to at least attempt the mountain, and turn
back if it got ugly.
The alarm went off this morning at 7am, and we'd purposefully parked
the car in a lot where it needed to be removed by 8am, to motivate us
into action. I ate two enormous bowls of Irish Muesli to top up my
energy stores, and we geared up as if to go skiing, and set off for
the base of the mountain. After driving maybe 15 minutes, we caught
our first glimpse of the dazzling peak, and exchanged nervous laughs
and asked ourselves what the hell we were getting into. I cannot
emphasize how large and intimidating the mountains look here. The
highest peak rises to only 3500 feet, but the fact that they rise from
sea level, and are strewn with sheer cliffs, jagged peaks and
unfathomably steep slopes makes them appear downright terrifying to
anyone with the idea of climbing one.
We arrived at a small farm at the end of a stunning one-lane road. The
road followed a series of switchbacks as it descended into a large
valley filled with grazing sheep. At the tiny car park, there was a
donation mailbox to leave your 2 Euro for use of the lot. In the
summertime there is a small hut with fireplace and hot showers, but it
is inexplicably closed in the winter, when, ostensibly, one might need
it the most.
Climbing the mountain involved far more than just scampering up it's
steep slopes. We first had to navigate a 4 mile valley, slowly rising
from the car park, vaguely following a cascading river that brought
snow runoff down from the hills. Aside from my inadequate footwear (I
was only wearing running shoes), we were dressed for the occasion, I
in my ski pants and puffy coat, Michael in a similar getup of
waterproof fabric. We decided to hike up into the valley to the base
of the mountain, assess the weather and the conditions and make a
decision from there as to whether we'd actually go higher.
The walking was arduous, steadily increasing in elevation. We followed
the riverbed, which cut a deep swath through the surrounding green
fields. We had to stay up on the steep slopes of the bank, as far
above in the fields, the grass was more like a swamp, and the only dry
footing was hopping along the rocks along the river. Two or three
times we had to ford the river, skipping from one side to the other
while trying to keep our feet dry. This was no small task, as the
river was 15 feet wide at it's narrowest, and moving at a decent clip,
with rapids and several small waterfalls. We pushed on however, the
mountain looming ever closer, drifting in and out of the low clouds.
Only once were we able to catch a brief glimpse of the impossibly high
The hike through the valley continued ascending until we were in the
mountain's shadow; here we were greeted with the most stunning scenery
yet. Not a sole was in sight, the only sounds the rushing water and
the howling wind, as it tumbled down the steep slopes of the
surrounding peaks, seemingly trying to halt our progress. The valley
was surrounded on three sides by towering peaks, and we had the
feeling an ant might have if walking between the fingers of some ones
outstretched hand. At the terminus of the valley were two lakes formed
by the runoff of the neighboring peaks, which spilled into the river
below. This was an unexpected surprise, and we stopped here to take a
rest and some photos before pushing up the most difficult portion of
the hike. We'd been walking for 2 hours.
Two peaks, one to our right and one to our left dominated our
immediate frame of view. Between them ran what's called a 'saddle',
connecting the peaks in a concave arch of exposed rock and snow. To
reach the low point of the saddle, we were faced with the difficult
task of ascending the 'Devil's Ladder' a chute right up the middle,
1000-foot cliffs boxing us in on either side. This would have been
difficult in dry conditions, but because of the snow up at higher
elevations, there was quite a bit of runoff, which cascaded down the
Ladder, making the climb slippery and cold.
Most of the climbing on the Ladder was zig-zagging between the cliffs,
looking for rocks to hop onto to increase our elevation. The ground
was unstable, with loose boulders at every turn, and we took extra
care not to knock one of them on the person following. Several times
we had to boost each other up to a higher rock, but we continued on,
rather swiftly, and the going was tiring, but not extremely difficult.
But every time we turned around we were granted a fantastic view of
the valley we'd just traversed, and also reminded of how steep this
slope was – and that we'd have to walk down eventually.
At this point we were in uncharted territory. We half expected that
we'd turn around at the base of the Ladder, but the weather was
holding, we'd only gotten a few drops of rain on us, and by now we
were pumped to at least get to 'Christ's Saddle', and re-evaluate
there. After all, it was enormous fun, and serious adventure, and we
were in our element.
With about 50 feet to go on the Ladder, we hit the snow line. It was
already mostly melted, but made the going a bit slower – the rocks
we'd been using as footsteps were now hidden under a melting layer of
snow, and it was getting steeper. The final pitch was almost straight
up, and we reverted to climbing up on our hands and knees, digging
into the snow for traction. I reached the Saddle first, and was
greeted by a phenomenal view of the opposite valley, lakes and rivers
bisecting the green fields below. To my right was the summit of Mt.
Carrauntoohill, our mountain. The neighboring peaks made up the
MacGillycuddy's Reeks, the highest range in Ireland. They were much
closer and much scarier at our new vantage point. We now stood at 2400
feet; we knew this thanks to Michael's GPS…we'd been setting waypoints
every half hour in case the weather turned and we lost visibility on
the way down.
I was dead-set on making the summit by now. I never imagined even
getting to the Saddle, and was now inspired to keep going. We rested
for about 15 minutes, but soon my feet began to get chilly – they were
soaked by now, and the temperature had dropped to below freezing –
there was about a foot or two of snow drifting in the 30+ knot winds.
We needed to keep moving.
I led the way, and the going was much easier on the ridge that led to
the summit. I was suddenly living every adventure story I've ever read
about climbing a mountain, and could hardly contain my enthusiasm.
Michael was dragging a bit, so I carried the backpack for the final
push. The snow got firmer the higher we climbed, and the slope
gradually became steeper and rockier – and it got progressively
windier. The strongest gusts were in the range of 30-40 knots, which
was disconcerting, but for the time being the peak was in the sun.
Clouds were building to the south however, and I urged Michael to pick
up the pace if we were going to make the summit in sunlight. I did not
want to get up there and be stuck in a cloud…we had already had more
than enough adventure to worry about finding our way down.
I was 50 feet higher than Michael when the summit came into view.
There is a large steel cross marking the summit, and seeing it for the
first time energized me. I nearly ran on my hands and knees for the
final 100 feet or so. Then I crested the last ridge and stood up.
Words cannot describe the feeling I had at that moment. I experienced
a surge of adrenaline, was overwhelmed by the 360 degree view, was
scared by the sheer drop of the cliffs on the north face of the
mountain, and was overcome with an enormous sense of accomplishment.
I'd just done something I'd always dreamed of, and felt an enormous
sense of pride. But at that moment I also confirmed to myself that I
can do absolutely anything. Suddenly I decided I'd climb more
mountains, I'd sail around the world, I'd complete that full Ironman.
I discovered again that I have it within myself to do anything that I
set my mind on doing.
When Michael crested the final ridge we high-fived each other,
embraced, and soaked it all in. We took photos of each other and of
the surroundings. You could actually see the ocean from our vantage
point, and we couldn't believe we'd made it all the way to the top,
two wanna-be adventurers probably in way over our heads. But we made
it, and we savored every second on that peak. Strangely the wind
actually died down, and we experienced a serene peace, standing on our
spot, the highest in all of Ireland, 3500 feet straight down into the
The entire way up, we kept saying to ourselves that the hard part was
going to be coming down. We stayed in the snow drifts on the descent
from the summit along Christ's Saddle. Here the footing was much more
secure, and we traversed from one side of the ridge to the other,
following the snow. We made remarkable time, and arrived back at the
top of Devil's Ladder by 1pm, the original time we said we'd turn
around, no matter what. We were a bit concerned about descending the
Ladder, especially the snow-covered steep section near the top.
Michael went first, sliding on his ass most of the way, and I followed
close behind, scurrying crab-like on hands and knees. The volume of
runoff had increased dramatically, and the climb down was much
slippery and wetter than the climb up. It didn't much matter, because
it had also started raining, and we were completely soaked.
Our legs were quite thankful when we emerged back onto relatively flat
ground. Now all that lay between us and the warm car was 4 miles of
hiking through the river valley. This time we headed for the left side
of the river, and followed its banks, again hopping from rock to rock.
Getting our feet wet was less of a concern however, which made the
route-finding a bit easier. Fording the river was now only a matter of
walking through a shallow bit. The sheep looked at us funny, and we
steered clear of the horned ones. This is after all their territory,
and we thanked them for letting us use their mountain as we passed by.
After 6 hours of near constant walking and climbing, we finally
crossed back into the car park, in the pouring rain, soaked and
delirious with satisfaction. As it turns out, we timed the weather
absolutely perfectly. When we were on the summit you could see dark
clouds rolling in from the south, so we didn't dawdle and headed down
with haste. It paid off, because soon after leaving the Ladder behind
us, it began raining in earnest, and continued the length of the
valley. The mountain was now cloaked in rain and fog, and when we
turned around for one last glimpse, it was gone.
Which leads me to my horrifying shower. We finally returned to the
hostel and proudly announced our success to the same receptionist who
tried to steer us towards the bike-rental. She happily rented us
another room, and even offered to do our laundry for a discounted
rate. When I finally stepped into the shower, the only hot water was
literally a trickle, barely enough to get the soap out of my hair. I
stood there, freezing, trying to get warm, unsuccessfully. Now I sit
in the café of the hostel, having drunk my second cup of tea in an
effort to bring my core temperature back up, to no avail.
The sense of accomplishment I'm feeling right now I have never
experienced. I think it's a combination of doing something totally on
a whim, with little preparation, something we probably had no business
getting ourselves into, and the ecstasy that nature provided our
senses at the summit. The photos I got are amazing, but they of course
do little justice to the serenity and the peace we felt standing on
that mountain. I'm physically drained, but mentally bursting with
energy and enthusiasm. Suddenly all bets are off. I've opened up an
entire new part of myself and the boundaries within have become
limitless. I have stoked a long-smoldering fire within myself, and it
won't easily be extinguished.